Telling Children

Join discussion

Perhaps this is not the most helpful title because as we all know, there are children and children. Obviously age and educational level have a huge influence on how they think, imagine, construct the world, but so do less obvious variables like the emotional health of the home, relationships with siblings and non-family adults, exposure to experiences of all kinds and what one might call the mystique of death within which they have been raised. Given the complexities of these variables and the relationships between them, we will not attempt in these paragraphs to give you an “Everybody’s Guide to telling children…..” What may be more helpful is o highlight a few things you might find it helpful to think about before you broach the subject with children.

First and most obviously, what was the child’s real, lived relationship with the deceased? We emphasise “real, lived”, because there is a saccharin version of all such relationships that tends to be trotted out in the sentimentality of the moment. “Oh, he always loved his gran, didn’t you, Alfie?” Yes, except when she was clippng him round the ear for dropped aitches or snot-laden sniffs. His lived experience was of a robust, no-nonsense gran whom he liked and respected but for whom he kept a wary eye open. He won’t miss his ear-clips, but he will miss her humour and her earthy kindness that slipped him chocolate biscuits when his mum was not looking. We believe the nearer you can get to this gran as you tell him of her death, the easier you make it for him to grieve honestly - and healthily.

Secondly, we think it is important to put the deceased in as realistic a social context as you can. S/he did not live in isolation: s/he related to many members of the family and a range of people outside it. It is watching these relationships which largely formed the child’s construction of, to return to the image, his gran. He saw how she lit up when her son came into the room, and sensed that she was not especially fond of Auntie Brenda. Like us all, she had her likes, dislikes and even a few real hatreds.

And that meant, thirdly, that she presented different facets of herself depending on the company she was in, partly because that would determine how she spent the time. Perhaps she loved playing whist with the adults or Scrabble with the children. It is by tapping into these memories that we can encourage the child to re-create a gran whom he cen mourn without maudlin or sentimentality.

In terms of process, all this implies encouraging the child - of whatever age - to tell stories about the deceased. You can elicit stories easily from most children by asking them such questions as When did she make you laugh? What did you enjoy doing with her? Tell me the best story about her life she ever told you, When do you think she looked her best? What did she most enjoy doing? Such story-excavations can have a marked bearing on the child’s ability to mourn well. It need not be a solemn or sobering occasion (or set of occasions): rather the reverse; hopefully it will be enjoyable and life affirming.

What if the child asks, as many do, quasi-religious questions, such as “Will I ever see her again?” “Where is she now?” “Will she see Grandpa again?”. You will, no doubt, have your own answers to such queries. All we would ask is that you answer them with your integrity. It probably is not helpful, at least for younger children, to hedge your bets: “Some people think this and others think that.” Better to tell them what you think: sooner or later they will think these things out for themselves and reach answers that have integrity for them.